Four Ways to Screw Up a Proposal

Have you ever screwed up a proposal?  I have. Not the important “Will You Marry Me?” proposal, although that was a near miss.  Wasn’t prepared for the “Why?”  But I followed with “Because I’m fun on camping trips.”  Apparently, that was a winning value proposition.  Anyway, back to the subject of proposal writing and four things to avoid.

  1. Ignoring the Instructions

If there’s one thing in common with most failed proposals, it’s that the proposal writer didn’t follow the instructions.  There can be any number of excuses for this.  Perhaps the instructions appeared to be written by someone off their medications and/or a marmot could reorganize the instructions more logically.  No matter what the instructions say, it’s wise to follow them exactly so that the evaluator can readily see that you are compliant and easy to evaluate.  Of course, if you’ve been working closely with the customer before the Request for Proposal release you already know what the instructions mean, right?

  1. Underestimating the required effort

Writing a good proposal is a lot like writing a good term paper.  It’s hard to get started.  Any number of things can get in your way before you read the RFP in detail: arranging travel for your next business trip, sorting the documents on your computer’s desktop, remodeling a bathroom, etc.  Failed proposals generally start late and fizzle out altogether as the pace of trying to obtain all the required documentation increases exponentially. Good proposal writers read the questions, think them through, martial the facts and then, and only then, start to write.  Just like you learned in English 101.

  1. Delaying writing the executive summary

Every section in a proposal is important, whether it’s about technical compliance, your team, past performance, etc.  But there’s one part that’s first among equals – the executive summary.  It may be the only thing the key decision maker reads. A great technique is to write it first. Why?  Wouldn’t it be better to save it to the last to tie everything together? Likely no.  Writing the executive summary first forces one to synthesize the offering and focus on the key discriminators.  It also helps unify the proposal so later it looks and tastes more like bouillabaisse than old fish stew.

  1. Filling in with boilerplate language

A lot of proposals seemly demand language cut and pasted from previous offerings.  In some technical parts that’s appropriate and may save you some time.  But too much cut and paste can make your proposal look like a ransom note.  Every customer is different and every RFP is an opportunity to show in detail that you understand that difference.  Aside from the RFP, what’s driving the customer to buy? What does the customer value? What claims does the customer want substantiated with hard data?  What risks does the customer anticipate?  Proposals tailored to each customer can turn evaluators into champions.  Think of the proposal not as an irritating requirement, but as a selling document designed to beat the competitors.

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